« We do not […] condemn [un acte] because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it », E. Durkheim,  » On the Division of Social Labor » . (1)

« People who have little, in a society where it is important to have a lot, easily become undisciplined.

« When you see the offender as a member of another species, a non-person, a thing, there are no limits to the atrocities that can be done »(2).

What is the purpose of prison? The question seems to be solved most of the time and the answer is obvious: « to punish those who do wrong ». In this categorizing punitive equation, the prisoner is not really part of society, although he will be over-represented in the media, participating in his infra-humanization. We are therefore not surprised that the second function generally attributed to prisons, which is curiously called « reintegration »(3), is not implemented 

In a capitalist and technocratic society, the issue of imprisonment is of paramount importance to raise. It responds to the values we defend and therefore to the type of society we desire. But in the political-media spectacle, prison would only be the result of individual demerit that would justify the sanction of confinement, contrary to the myth of individual merit advocated by a liberal society. The reality is more complex… 

In 1997, there were 8156 inmates in Belgian prisons, in 2014 there were 11769, an increase of 44%. At the same time, alternative sentences, such as electronic surveillance, have increased considerably. While in 2000, only 14 were subject to this monitoring, in 2014 there were 1807, a 130-fold increase(4). What has happened in 15 years? Have the criminals, delinquents of all kinds, come out of their lair to traumatize the good people? This is not reflected in police crime statistics, which indicate that between 2000 and 2013, the total number of crimes decreased from 1,001,952 to 990060, a decrease of about 1.2%. Here, curious? This means that with nearly equivalent crime figures, more individuals were in prison in 2014 than in 2007, more were subject to the electronic bracelet, much more. In almost 20 years, there was the Dutroux affair, September 11, a withdrawal of the social state and a deepening of inequalities… 

With the effects on prison policy: The hypertrophy of preventive detention, the extension of the penal perimeter and the lengthening of sentences(5) which are manifested by a higher rate of incarceration (14,684 incarcerations in 1997 against 17,914 in 2013, an increase of 22%). But these do not explain everything, the less frequent and more severe conditional releases, the low recourse to non-custodial sentences, lengthen the time of the prisoner in prison, and thus the number who are locked up at any given time. These are some of the facts. 

The popular belief on the prison world is essentially fed by three elements: the informational production of television news and various programs and newspapers that over-represent the news; television series and other films where cops, judges and criminals are omnipresent; the demagogy of politicians who show a strength in one area — the criminal world — that is directly proportional to the weakness they show in another — the business world and white-collar criminals — where laissez-faire and laxity are the rules. As we mentioned, this socially constructed belief contributes to the social dichotomization between « good guys » and « bad guys ». 

In this triptych of media coverage of the prison issue, which is basically quite fictional at each level(6)To state the truth, namely that the increase in the number of people incarcerated is not the result of an increase in offences, is almost impossible, as this reality would run counter to the spectacle constructed and the interests that each of the parties derives from it (we know how good the spectacle of crime is at selling). As the OIP expresses it in its Belgian report, « in an ambiguous game that feeds itself between the imperative of ratings that pushes for sensationalism, the effects of political announcements and the desire to satisfy ‘public opinion’, a security climate is maintained that pushes for increased repression and masks certain realities » (p.14).


However, it is only by questioning erroneous conceptions that we can hope to see a reversal of the trend of inflation of the prison population and the worsening of living conditions within the prison walls. In this sense, from the beginning of his work, The punishment industry, Nils Christie, Norwegian criminologist, poses the problem: the prison is a regulatory institution, in a productivist society where wealth and access to work are unequally distributed and which therefore generates a surplus of population which is not useful for production. Strict criminal sanctions would thus aim at controlling and disciplining the recalcitrant masses. Once taken care of by slavery, serfdom and compulsory work and residence, this task is now devolved to prisons. The success of the prison machine can be explained by the conjunction of a production of « unusable » people, of a welfare state in complete decay giving way to a neoliberal penal state combining social misery and the diktat of individual responsibility with prison grandeur, as well as of a political class subjugated and subjugated by the economic world, which deprives itself of all the means to control it and works in a domain, that of the prison, where it can still give the illusion of control. 

But the success of the prison system is supported and focused on this idea, relative to human nature, of rational appearance, well established in people’s minds and which the political and media discourse maintains formidably: that punishment would respond to a crime defined by a natural law. A simple equation would be: a crime x is committed, a punishment x is given. From this belief would come the perennial idea « that the prison population is an indicator of offending ‚ » and therefore that « the if the criminal or offender triggers the process to which the authorities merely react, then naturally the size of the prison population will reflect the crime situation »(7). The prison question is therefore not a question of social choice. No! Like God’s grip on our souls, the prison population would only be a sign of fate. 

However, those who have the courage to go beyond manufactured fears and begin to take a close look at the prison issue know where to look to dismantle false beliefs: the United States. They will then see that the extraordinary inflation of American detainees since the 1980s does not correspond to a corresponding growth in crime, but to eminently political choices. But this untruth of a number of detainees relative to the number of crimes committed being deeply established in people’s minds, it is understandable that we still hear so often this so called « laxity of justice »… 


But this popular belief is far from being independent of the representation of the poor and of poverty in our modern societies. What does that have to do with anything? Well, it is that the vast majority of prison guests are the same ones who outside populate poor neighborhoods and live below the defined poverty line, making theInternational Prison Observatory say that it is an « institution for the poor » (OIP, p.58). What we think of the poor, and therefore by extension of the way in which the social being is constructed, has therefore a necessary implication on the way of thinking about prison and fault. 

Thus, there are essentially two interpretations of poor people: they can be considered « as idle drunks, good-for-nothings or victims of social conditions beyond their control?« From there,« the disadvantaged areas of the cities are [-they] places where those who have no aspirations choose to congregate, or [sont-ils] dumping grounds for those who do not receive their fair share of modern society ».(8).

At the level of state policies, and therefore of the penal system, this changes everything. One can consider the crimes, more frequent in the disadvantaged districts, as indicators of misery, and set up radical social reforms to eradicate misery; or one can to clean the citieswith a Karcher , to reduce the unemployment benefits, to force the precarious and underpaid work, and to maintain the misery as it is. In the first case, it is accepted to consider that misery — manufactured — partly determines criminality and its control, in the other that the individual is the only actor of his destiny and that his individual responsibility is the only criterion to take into account. 

Let us specify at the outset that even if a certain form of delinquency is more prevalent in places where poverty is concentrated, there is also, and above all, increased repression aimed at those who live in these areas. Thus, if there are mostly poor people in prison, it is not necessarily because they are more delinquent, but  » is that they are sanctioned more at all stages of the penal chain, due to criminal policy choices and the individual attitude of judicial actors (police surveillance, reporting to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, issuance of arrest warrants, conviction on the merits) ». (OIP, p.58). And if they are in prison it is because « In many cases, prisoners have experienced a life path marked by breaks with the primary institutions of society, whether in terms of family, school or work. Thus, the precariousness of incarcerated people is marked in different ways: early family breakdowns and school dropouts, material precariousness and emotional deprivation, lack of job prospects, repeated passages in delinquency or drugs,… « (9).

Basically, « both the processes set in motion throughout the penal chain and the disaffiliation of individuals at the social, economic and/or family level show that prison is the ultimate link in the chain of social exclusion for a significant number of prisoners ». (OIP, p.58).

In the « poor » category, there is obviously the subcategory « foreigner », overrepresented in Belgian prisons (43% of the inmates are foreigners).  » Foreigners are discriminated against at all stages of the criminal justice system: they are checked more often on the street, they are arrested more quickly and more easily placed under arrest. For the same crime, a foreigner is much more likely to go to prison. He will also be sentenced more severely, in part because he is unfamiliar with the cultural codes of our criminal justice system. Foreigners still have very little access to parole » (OIP, p.66).


Obviously, this impossibility of thinking of misery as an indecency that must be combated stems essentially from our inability to dialectically link it with wealth. Certainly, liberal thinking specifically unbundles the two realities by grouping them under the « cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ « (10). Yes, « he who wants to can », therefore: the poor person is the only one responsible for his indigence, the rich person for his wealth. And if you can’t make it, there’s still the Lotto! 

The fable is beautiful but proves to be misleading when one is willing to virtually get out of one’s condition and to accept the part of determination of the being — that we are thus each the result of conditions which exceed us. The wealth coming in the first instance from what the earth offers us, the envelope is closed. But some people benefit more, so if there is more for some, there is less for others and therefore wealth is the fruit and cause of poverty. This distortion is essentially expressed, in a society that values having over being, in terms of possession. Filled with advertisements, the consumer society creates a perpetual feeling of relative lack; the individual, summoned to consume, if unable to do so, feels the frustration. As criminologist Niels Christie says, « the amount of things that can be stolen is increasing day by day. There is so much to take, so much to drink « (11). As a result,  » the failure of the social democratic consensus of the 1950s [qui] that better conditions would reduce crime was based on notions of poverty reduction as absolute deprivation. But the cause of crime is not absolute deprivation, it is relative deprivation. It is not the absolute level of wealth, but the perceived unfairness of the distribution of wealth, that affects the crime rate. »(12).

The poor, rather than fighting wealth, are a contrario encouraged to seek it and thus aspire to resemble the one who is partly responsible for his condition. Adored by the fanatics of the soccer show, Eden Hazard, to quote only one example, whose emoluments exceed 250 000 euros per week, is not perceived by his admirers as the one who empties their bowl. On the contrary! The street kid dreams of Eden… To get closer to this, he models his existence on the models propagated by the average Western lifestyle, perceived as universal(13). If, as Thorstein Veblen says  » the desire for wealth can hardly be satisfied in any individual » (…) « the fight is in reality a race for esteem, for provocative comparison, there is no possible outcome « , the fact remains that some people temporarily relieve their frustration by possession, while others can only acquire the valued objects by subterfuge, most often illegal. It is therefore no coincidence that in Belgium « The inmates are predominantly young men with limited education, low socioeconomic status, and have committed theft. Most of them have barely been to school. » (OIP, p.107). Those who hold the position of self-construction of the individual will retort that « he only had to work at school »… they are immediately invited to come and see behind the walls… of the school(14).

Certainly, those who do not consume are useless in a society where growth remains the ultimate goal, even if they are swallowed up by undeclared work, which is precarious and offered at advantageous rates to those who can afford it because of their recognized identity and their financial status. In this hunt for the « useless », the consumption of drugs and the stronger penalization of its use and sale by disadvantaged social profiles, the same ones that populate the prisons and benefit from social assistance because of their poverty, is inevitably the fact of this exclusion. « In practice, the war on drugs has paved the way for a war on those considered the least useful and potentially most dangerous of the population . »(15).

One point of struggle to decrease crime seems to be to « reducing relative deprivation, ensuring that meaningful work is available at a living wage, providing decent housing in which people are proud to live, ensuring the existence of universally accessible recreational facilities, and insisting that enforcement of these rules is also within the law. »(16). This brings us to the fundamental problem of the creation by the system of « non-users » (the unemployed, the delinquents, the old, the pensioners, the school dropouts, etc.), and the subsequent establishment of palliative institutions to take care of them. 


But rather than providing decent work on the outside, the architects of prison promise intramural work. And for that, in Belgium, they created Cellmade! literally made in a cell — well yes, if you imitate the American prison model, you might as well Americanize your name too. Cellmade presents itself as the « label of the Régie du Travail Pénitentiaire, an autonomous service of the FPS Justice ». « Since 1931 we have been involved in the training and education of prisoners in Belgian prisons . And as if in a catalog for businessmen eager to make money, the service adds « you have the guarantee that we do good work, with know-how ». Yes!

Since capitalism recovers everything, why do without it? The man deprived of freedom, left idle by a prison system that only organizes for him the punitive side of the project, the entrepreneurs rather than being perceived as the pioneers of a new form of slavery, become heroes who from then on, like saviors, give activity to the prisoners. What philanthropists! Listen to Cellmade talk about the benefit to the inmates: « The work gives them the opportunity to take responsibility and compensate the victims. They acquire life discipline and professional experience that will facilitate their reintegration when the time comes. Everyone wins« Uh, everyone? « Prison work pays off. Every day in Belgium, more than 30 prison workshops put a flexible and motivated workforce at your service. Assembly, binding, packing, confection… ? You benefit from quality work at an attractive price « . Oh yeah?… « Attractive » for one. So not for the other. And we know who Leviathan works for… 

Moreover, a little further on, the autonomous service of the SPF Justice admits it without ambiguity: « doning work to prisoners? It pays more than you think! Both to your company and to those inside. Here are a few good reasons among others to choose prison. In prison, you will find everything you are looking for:

- Sufficient capacity (sic)
- A flexible and motivated workforce (Re-sic)
- A qualified and experienced technical staff
- Rigorous quality controls
- On-time delivery
- Short lead times
- Competitive rates ».

But we have to look human and pretend that we are also there to help them, just like the rich who do charity work and redistribute a few crumbs of their booty with the help of the media, or these multinationals who plunder non-Western countries and tell us that « even if what we do is not very good, without us they would die of hunger. Nice dilemma: to starve or to be exploited? And it’s good to be philanthropic, but it’s especially good to show it: « and you, what’s in it for you? You reinforce your image as a socially responsible company « , says Cellmade. A win-win situation! 

Cellmade will keep quiet about what the OIP says about the remuneration of the prisoners… « the gratuities are quite derisory (the minimum is 0,62 euros /hour) (…) Inmates performing domestic tasks receive between 100 and 150 euros. In the workshop, they can receive from 150 to 300 euros. These figures, given as an indication, differ according to the prisons and the number of hours worked per month. In addition, the Prison Authority takes 40% of the revenue allocated for work done on behalf of private contractors. The inmates, paid on a piecework basis, are therefore awarded the remaining 60%. » (OIP, p.101). Come on, let’s help ourselves to the passage, don’t be shy, right? They are still only prisoners! 

The new slavers disguise themselves as philanthropists and offer jobs on the inside for the ones they had taken away on the outside… « an American worker who earned $8 an hour loses his job when his firm relocates to Thailand where workers are paid only $2 a day. Unemployed, a stranger in a society indifferent to his needs, he is drawn into a spiral of drugs or other illegal means of subsistence. He is arrested, imprisoned and put to work. 

« Prison does more than good work » 

Slogan of Cellmade, Label of the prison labor board 

His new salary is 22 cents an hour. From the worker to the unemployed, to the criminal, and finally to the prisoner-worker, the cycle has come full circle. And the only winner is big industry. »(17). But be careful! In the reign of the law of the free and undistorted market, is there not a risk of unfair competition with Bangladesh? 

The economic value of the prison should not be underestimated in an imploding growth society, a dying corpse that will seek growth with its teeth if necessary. Reducing the « wage handicap », a term used by both employers and unions, also involves prison exploitation, even if it remains small in scale. Unemployment and misery will be managed by the rate of incarceration, all of which will be made possible by a massive transfer of public money to the private sector, at every stage of the prison process. 

And if this is not enough, we may slowly arrive at a situation where the prisoner himself takes charge of his life in prison, like in a hotel. What the hell! He is guilty anyway! It was already known that in our prisons the inmates had to buy their basic products from a canteen with expensive prices, often prohibitive. In the United States they are more « far », meaning « progressive »: the prisoners, in some states, pay per day for their « prison reception ». 

This is just one example of the ongoing privatization movement that is well illustrated by the construction and building projects contained in the government’s master plan(18). « The annual amount that the State will have to pay as compensation will be 12.2 million euros for the prison of Marche-en-Famenne, 13.7 million euros for Beveren, 12.1 million euros for Leuze-en-Hainaut and 15 million euros for Dendermonde »(19). Ironically, the public money paid to the private company in charge of constructing the buildings where the individuals are incarcerated, most of whom come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, will contribute to the reduction of public budgets, precipitating misery and increasing… incarceration. Win-win again for the private sector! The unlimited human capital of prisons is a waste if not used to its fullest. Excessive supply, generated by the police and the courts, but also by the prisons, thus becomes the rule. There is little room for reflection in this market system. And everything is the same: build more traffic lanes, you may reduce traffic jams for a while, but very soon the over-supply will determine a surplus of cars. The construction of roads will have enriched private contractors, the growth of the individual car will have enriched car manufacturers, and the degradation of air quality and accidents will have enriched private hospitals or those in the process of being so. 

Photo: Hugues de Wurstemberge

Moreover, it is not only because the state’s coffers are empty and it refuses to look for money where it is, that the private sector is used. By calling on him, « the government saves itself the cost of a referendum ». Relegation to the private sector… the State rents them the prison and borrows the money from their creditors… win win again, banks and entrepreneurs tighten the handcuffs… uh… the clamps. It is not surprising that the public authorities seem to be unaware of the upcoming construction projects: they are not the ones managing the business! Perfect illustration of the submission of the State to private interests, the prison indecency is not an accident, it is a meticulously organized work towards the way of the commercial totalitarianism dedicated to manage the productive chaos. 


It seems that it is our mega societies, where the local no longer has a place, that inevitably create mega-prisons. For crime is also born of the complete separation between individuals, reified into competitive and atomized entities: we no longer know our neighbor, and we die next to him, our rotting bodies waking him up only when the smell has become unbearable(20)The little old lady no longer plays her role of social control with the young; we miss sleeping souls — or dead souls, whatever! — on the ground, caught in the daily and alienating road to work or back home; we consume « together », we watch the same program, « together » with millions of atrophied beings simultaneously in front of the screen, but in all cases we are alone, the feeling of doing the same thing at the same time amplifying paradoxically the feeling of anomie(21).

And in this model, the isolation of the prison as an institution, and thus of the beings who inhabit it, is only the extreme expression of the generalized isolation that prevails in everything that is said to be « inside » society. The choice of locations for the new prisons is a further indication of this desire:  » The places envisaged for the future prisons, and in particular the future Brussels prison that will be built in Haren, are far from the center of the city, which will not facilitate visits by families, nor visits by lawyers or legal aid personnel. This choice to isolate the prison and build it out of sight of the citizens is symbolically strong. » (OIP, p.13)

Basically, what links all these experiences is the imperative to avoid contact in order to avoid the exercise of thought. And the media, in this scheme, are the great organizers of dichotomizations. It is impossible in this context to envisage meetings like those held in Norway where, after Christmas, two hundred participants meet for three days and three nights in a hotel. Among the people, we distinguish 5 groups: 

- The official actors of the penal system 

- prison directors, supervisors, doctors, social workers, court monitors, specialized teachers, judges, police officers;

- Politicians — parliamentarians, ministers sometimes, councillors always, and local elected officials;

- Representatives of the « liberal opposition » lay people interested in criminal policy, students, lawyers, university professors;

- Media representatives;

- Prisoners — often in the process of serving their sentences but receiving furloughs for these few days (…) Some of the participants are serving a sentence following a criminal conviction: murder, drugs, armed robbery, espionage(22).

Currently, it seems impossible to envisage this openness in Belgium. The reification of the prisoner, his relegation to the rank of infra-human, makes it easier for him to be used as an instrument, to be locked up and for the State to be absolved of its role as organizer and palliative manager of misery, continuing this accepted submission to the market. In this structural misery, capitalism finds new breaches, whether it is the intramural meals(23)This has produced a spectacle that mixes American series and TV news filled with scoops that generate a stereotype of the prisoner, building a social body that is becoming more and more distant from the possibility of empathy towards him, and which therefore tacitly accepts that the private sector should take charge of what it considers to be the scoriae of this salubrious social body. 


To break this erroneous link is to open the door to a political reflection free of its dangerous emotional pathos, to say without doubt that there are too many people in prison, that it does not work and remains a school of crime, and also, perhaps, to realize together that if it is the socio-economically most underprivileged classes that are found behind the walls, it is not by chance, but the fruit of a fundamentally unequal society, which only finds prison as a means of dealing with what it creates. To think about the prison is therefore to question the whole social system, it can be a profoundly subversive lever, and a means of struggle against this productivist society. Moreover, the number of detainees should no longer be seen as a sign of the politicians’ performance, but rather as their inability to think differently. 

Therefore, and at the risk of displeasing, on the way to a decent society we can only say « we are all prisoners ». 

Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. Citation tirée de l’ouvrage de Nils Christie, L’industrie de la punition. Prison et politique pénale en Occident. Éditions Autrement, 2003.
  2. Ces deux dernières citations proviennent de Nils Christie, L’industrie de la punition, ibid.
  3. Dont le dictionnaire donne comme définition « insérer à nouveau, réintroduire », indiquant bien que la prison serait comme « extérieure » à la société.
  4. autres/detenu. Certes, c’est le début de cette technologie de contrôle, mais sa croissance en regard de celle de la criminalité ne répond à aucune logique linéaire.
  5. Le lecteur se reportera aux ouvrages cités dans cet article pour approfondir l’analyse, et notamment à l’excellent rapport de la section belge de l’Observatoire International des Prisons (OIP),, dont les passages qui sont cités dans cet article seront suivis d’une parenthèse indiquant OIP et numéro de page. Page 9 pour la présente citation.
  6. Car aucun des trois informations médiatiques, discours politiciens, fictions séries, films et reportages -, n’étaye ses propos sur la réalité. Ce qui paraît plus logique pour les films et les médias, ne l’est pourtant nullement quand il s’agit de des journaux télévisés et de la presse.
  7. Nils Christie, Ibid., pp 43–44
  8. Idem, p.114.
  9. P. Mary, F. Batholeyns, J. Beghin, « La prison en Belgique : de l’institution totale aux droits des détenus ? », Déviance et Société, 2006, vol. 30, n° 3, pp. 389–404, cité dans OIP, p.58.
  10. « Le trope culturel de la responsabilité individuelle, qui envahit toutes les sphères de l’existence pour fournir un “vocabulaire de motivation” pour la construction du soi (pensé sur le modèle de l’entrepreneur), la diffusion des marchés et la légitimation de la compétition élargie qu’elle implique, dont la contrepartie est la déresponsabilisation des grandes firmes et le défaussement de l’Etat ». Voir Loïc Wacquant, La fabrique de l’Etat néolibéral. « Workfare », « Prisonfare » et insécurité sociale, dans Civilisations vol.59, n°1 – Sexualités: apprentissage et performance.
  11. NilsChristie,Ibid.,p.73.
  12. Jock Young, « Left realism and the priorities of crime control »,1989, cité dans Nils Christie, p.72.
  13. A ce sujet, voir notamment, l’ouvrage d’Alain Accardo, A., Le petit-bourgeois gentilhomme, Editions Agone, Marseille, 2009.
  14. Voir le numéro spécial de février/mars 2014 « L’école au-delà des apparences ».
  15. Nils Christie, Ibid., p.78.
  16. Young Jock, Ibid., cité dans Nils Christie, Ibid., p.72
  17. Linda Evans et Eve Goldberg, « The prison industrial complex and the global economy », 1999, Cité dans Nils Christie, Ibid., p. 142.
  18. Voir
  19. « Bilan prisons : les raisons de la colère », Communiqué de presse de l’OIP, voir
  20. Rappelons-nous la canicule meurtrière de 2003.
  21. Et c’est d’ailleurs de cette anomie que naît la recherche de valeurs communes au travers des médias, qui ne répondront évidemment pas à la demande mais aggraveront le problème.
  22. Nils Christie, Ibid., pp. 45 et 46.
  23. La présence de Sodexo dans 36 prisons françaises sur 8 ans lui aurait ainsi rapporté près d’1 milliard d’euros. Voir OIP p.42.

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